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Ellen Browning Scripps Instrumental In Shaping San Diego

Ellen Browning Scripps Instrumental In Shaping San Diego
Ellen Browning Scripps was one of San Diego's most influential patrons and philanthropists. The annual conference of the Congress of History of San Diego and Imperial Counties this weekend will focus on the lives of local women who made a difference in the history of the region. Of these, the legacy of Ellen Browning Scripps is arguably the most far-reaching.

Ellen Browning Scripps was one of San Diego's most influential patrons and philanthropists. Her family name and her legacy can been seen in many aspects of local life...from health care to ocean research. But you may not know that Ms. Scripps didn't even move to San Diego until she was 60-years old.

In honor of women's history month, a conference in San Diego this weekend will focus on little-known aspects of the life of Ellen Browning Scripps...and other unsung history of women in San Diego.

GUEST: Molly McClain, professor of history, University of San Diego


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Ellen Browning Scripps was one of San Diego's most initial patrons and philanthropists. Her family name and her legacy can be seen in many aspects of local life from healthcare to ocean research. But you may not know that Ms. Scripps didn't even move to San Diego until she was about 60 years old. In honor of women's history month, a conference in San Diego this weekend will focus on little known aspects of the life of Ellen Browning Scripps and examine more unsung history of women in San Diego. I'd like to introduce my guest, Molly McClain is UCSD professor of history, and author of an up coming book on Ellen Browning Scripps. And good morning. Thanks for being here.

MCCLAIN: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: We'd like our audience to join in, if they'd like, if you have a little bit of history you'd like to share or if perhaps you have a question about Ellen Browning Scripps. Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Ellen Browning Scripps lived to a great age here in San Diego. She was 95 when she died, I believe. But where did she actually make her fortune?

MCCLAIN: She made her fortune in Detroit. She had grown up in Rushfield, Illinois. She was born in 1836 and spent most of her working years in Detroit, Michigan, and as you said, she comes here about the age of 60 and stays here for thirty-five years until her death until her death in 1932.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we're talking about a women as you say who was born in 1836. How did she manage to acquire so much money?


MCCLAIN: She got very fortunate. She and her brothers. They got into newspapers at -- during the time of the American civil war. Now, in the early nineteenth century, newspapers had been largely just local commercial affairs. They tracked the price of wheat, the price of corn. But during the civil war, the American public became addicted to the news. They started picking up the news every day to read about civil war battles. And after the civil war, Americans remained kind of hooked on the news. And so newspapers in the 1860s were like the Internet in the 1990s. It was just an incredible boom. And the people who got into newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer, for example, made tremendous fortunes.

CAVANAUGH: Including the Scripps family.

MCCLAIN: That's right am.

CAVANAUGH: Now, she -- it's very important, I think to point out, she and her family were not born wealthy.

MCCLAIN: No, no, indeed not. They grew up in, I think, comparative rural poverty on the prairies of Illinois.

CAVANAUGH: And I understand she used her salaries, as a teacher to make her first investment in newspapers?

MCCLAIN: That's right. In 1865, when she's about 28 queers old, she goes to Detroit, and her brother is working on the advertiser and tribune of he invests her money that she had saved as a teacher into the advertising tribune. And by 1870 owns about $4,000 worth of stock. Now, that's about half a million dollars worth of stock in today's dollars of that's very early. Exactly. And she continues through the rest of her career investing her salary, her weekly salary in the papers. So that by the 18 '80s when the papers take off, she's doing very well. By the 1890s issue she's independently wealthy in her own right.

CAVANAUGH: We, in honor of women's history month, we are talking about Ellen Browning Scripps. And my guest is Molly McClain. She's a professor of history at the university of San Diego, and author of a forthcoming book on Ellen Browning Scripps. And if you'd like to share an anecdote -- I don't want to leave people with the impression that Ellen Scripps just invested her money. She actually went to work for the paper, right?

MCCLAIN: Yes, that's right. Of she worked -- starting in 1865 on the Advertiser-Tribune, writing short stories, reviewing musicals and plays, and in 1873, her brother founded the Detroit evening news, which was kind of a mass market cheap paper aimed at Detroit's working classes, and he sold it at $0.02 per issue, which was about half the cost of his competitors. So in 1873, she goes to work as a copy editor, a proof reader, sometimes she even sets type of sheep also comes up with what she calls her Miscellany, which is essentially a collection of very short, witty news bites that she collects from the telegraph and other local papers. And this is before the era of syndicated press. So essentially this is an early form in syndication. And later her brother, E. W. Scripps, will later take this idea to form a set of syndicated newspapers called the United Press.

CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. We have a caller on the lineup, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Maracella is calling from San Diego. Good morning, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You're welcome.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm calling just to say thank you for doing this story. I have the honor and pleasure of working at the Scripps research institute, which was founded by Ms. Ellen in 1924 when she retired here. And I coordinate their K-12 education programs, and we have had a fantastic relationship with the Ellen Browning Scripps foundation. And the officer she had for education is something that carries on to this day. At our institute, we have some of the brightest [CHECK AUDIO] working with our scientists in the laboratories all thanks to really Ms. Ellen Browning's education, of course. We have a great graduate program, and it's something that I personally get to see impacting San Diego lives every day.

CAVANAUGH: Part of the legacy. Thank you so much, Maracella, for calling in and sharing that with us.

MCCLAIN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We have to get Ellen Browning Scripps to San Diego though. She's still in Detroit. How did she and her brother come out here?

MCCLAIN: She and her brother Fred came out to visit their sister, Ana, who at that time was in the bay area undergoing treatment for very severe rheumatoid arthritis. So they decided to make a tour of California. This is in the winter of 1890, and they come south to San Diego. Fred also suffers from arthritis, and he finds that the climate, this very dry climate is very suitable to him am so he decides he wants to invest in a citrus ranch, in San Diego, essentially in Linda Vista. So they come down here and explore, she searches for sea shells on the coves of La Jolla, she goes out to Coronado, she stays at the Horton house grand downtown, visits Linda Vista, national city, and she finds it beautiful. And at the time, San Diego was kind of a busted, broken down boomtown. That's what her brother described it as. The real estate market had busted. The railroad did not come to San Diego as anticipated am there were a series of bank failures in the 1890s. And so property values were really quite cheap. At the same time, Ellen thought that San Diego was probably a good investment because agricultural productivity remained high. I'm not sure he anticipated the kind of development boom that would happen in the early 20th century. But she expected that it would be a good investment. So Fred -- she helped Fred purchase this ranch in Linda Vista, and this eventually became incorporated into Mira Mar. Her younger brother, E. W. Comes out later in 1890 and decides that San Diego is perfect. He wants to escape from business, the dealings with money, he's had a bad break with his older brother James, and he wants a place to kind of retreat from civilization, and he thinks Mira Mar is the place to do it. So together, they invest in Mira Mar, and they build kind of a ranch house. And you know, they spend their time horse back riding up down the mesas.

CAVANAUGH: Because one of the things that's interesting, I think in Ellen Browning Scripps' fascinating life is the fact that even though she was quite wealthy at the time and Amassed a fortune of her own at a time when most women didn't even have access to being able to work on their own or keep their own money if they were married, she was very ambivalent about being wealthy.

MCCLAIN: Yes, she was. She saw money creating problems in families. And she -- in her age, she lived during -- what mark Twain called the gilded age, at a time when people like the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts were making huge fortunes, and then passing them onto their heirs, founding dynasties. And she very much disapproved of inherited wealth. She thought that this was antidemocratic and part of a potentially -- the creation of an American aristocracy. Now, since she didn't have children, she was not married, she was not gonna create a dynasty with her wealth, but she could see that her brothers did have that ambition, both James and E. W. And she didn't want to constrict to that, quite frankly. So that's why at the end of her life, she made sure that she spent all of her money, and she left very little to any of her heirs.

CAVANAUGH: Let's start talking about the legacy of Ellen Browning Scripps here in San Diego. There are so many buildings and institutions that seem to have the Scripps name attached. What did -- I guess the best way to start is how did she start out? How did she start out investing and expanding the horizons of San Diego and being a philanthropist for this city?

MCCLAIN: She started after her brother George's death in 1900. He left her a great deal of evening news stock. And so by about 1900, she's worth something like $2 million in that money, something like $40 million now. So she wanted to leave immediately create a legacy for her brother George. And that would be UCSD's Scripps institute of oceanography. So that was the first thing she founded.

CAVANAUGH: Did that come from her looking at the shells?

MCCLAIN: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Why was she so fascinated with the ocean in.

MCCLAIN: She was extremely interested in science and natural history. She -- her sister collected shells and sea mosses and decorated their house, south molten villa, with all kinds of natural phenomenon.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting.

MCCLAIN: Yeah, and she -- herself, she would have liked to have become a doctor. She wore out medical dictionaries looking for cures for disease. She was very, very interested in science.

CAVANAUGH: So now, we also get the Scripps health legacy then.

MCCLAIN: That's right, that's right.

CAVANAUGH: And what else? I mean -- San Diego zoo?

MCCLAIN: She gave a lion grata to the San Diego zoo, and also an of a areae for birds of prey, yes.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wonder, she decided to settle in La Jolla; is that right?

MCCLAIN: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: And we have evidence of where she settled in La Jolla coming down to us. Tell us a lot bit about her residence in La Jolla.

MCCLAIN: She would -- when she lived at Mira Mar, she travelled on day trips to La Jolla quite frequently, and she thought it was just beautiful. And so in 1996, she bought two lots on the edge of the cliffs overlooking at sea and built a house that she called south molten villa. And at the time, there were just a few scattered arts and crafts bungalows in La Jolla. It was a very simple, unpretentious town, social life consisted of visiting your neighbors, taking picnics on the beach, going to hear concerts at the green dragon colony. It was very, very low key. Nobody cared very much about appearances of and it used to be said that La Jolla was a place to wear out your old clothes. And that suited her just fine. She wore old hats, and you know, she was not a dressy person. So it suited her very nicely. It was a very arts community. It was also a place that she called a woman's town. And that was because [CHECK AUDIO] summer colony and a year-round group of residents who were largely women, sort of retired, unmarried women or widows. So for the first time in her life, she's able to step out of her immediate family's circle and form this huge acquaintance of friends. You know, she helps found the La Jolla women's club, the parliamentary law club, the Wist club, have is a form of a game. [CHECK AUDIO] all of these women's clubs and organizes that were devoted to improving society and extending kind of democratic ideas.

CAVANAUGH: And what was her association with architect Irving Gill?

MCCLAIN: She was Irving Gill's early patron. She thought he was a bright young man with good ideas. And she was very much an innovator when it come to architecture and was very much a modernist herself. So she supported him. He rebuilt her house. [CHECK AUDIO] Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Bishop School in La Jolla. He did very important structures there.

CAVANAUGH: Another one of Scripps' legacies to San Diego. The Bishop School.

MCCLAIN: The Bishop School. She -- it was very, very important to her, and in fact she at one time had just wanted to build a women's college in La Jolla. And the bishop of has convinced her that it would be kind of better off if she built it up in Clairemont. And so that would become Scripps College which she would think later would become more greatest legacy.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said, she died at the age of 95 here in San Diego.

MCCLAIN: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: Would she known at that time? Of course her legacy is coming down to us, but in 1932 when she died was she already celebrated as one of the philanthropists of San Diego?

MCCLAIN: In fact she was known nationwide as a philanthropist. In 1926, she appeared on the cover of time magazine for having founded Scripps College. And the magazine portrayed her as kind of a pioneering journalist, someone who's been interested and involved in women's suffrage and prohibition at a very early time. And it lauded her as one of the great female philanthropists of the United States , actually not just San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think? In studying this woman for your book and looking at all she's accomplished from her time in had working -- setting type in Detroit to spending most of her fortune, giving all of her fortune away, most of it here in San Diego. What do you think her greatest gift is to San Diego?

MCCLAIN: I think her greatest gift ultimately, I have to say it was Scripps college. And second early the bishop school. She was really interested in women's education, and she thinks that women's education is the -- the start of sort of democratic freedoms.

CAVANAUGH: An empowerment for the entire society.

MCCLAIN: Exactly. And so she'll support other things. She supports the Constantinople women's college, oddly enough, the near east college association, bringing education to, you know, women far far away. Of she's involved in all kinds of educational programs. And her, you know, her idea that women were to be the equal of men, that they were to have their own jobs, their own positions, their own place, and this was her great hope, and it was through education, through scientific education, through women's education, through other kinds of educational organizations, museums, libraries, that the world would become a more democratic place.

CAVANAUGH: Philanthropist to the world then.

MCCLAIN: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for coming in and speaking to us.

MCCLAIN: Oh, it's my pleasure. Of thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Molly McClain is professor of history at USD, and author of a forthcoming back on Ellen Browning Scripps. I want everyone to know the Congress of Imperial County's annual conference, they made a defense, the unsung history of women in the San Diego region. It takes place this Friday and Saturday in Balboa park's park club bawl room and the recital hall. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Stay with us for hour two, coming up in just at a few minutes.